The Gently Subversive ‘Rev.’

[12 May 2014]

By Christine Brandel

Above: Tom Hollander as Adam Smallbone and Olivia Colman as Alex in Rev.


Vicars interact with a wide range of people, and the motley crew who pass through Adam’s church offer ample opportunities for comedy.

Tom Hollander is not a vicar but he does play one on TV. He is Adam Smallbone, a rural vicar who, with his wife, Alex (Olivia Colman), has been relocated to an inner city London parish, on the brilliant Rev., recently wrapped up its third series on BBC2.

Like most of the vicars we’ve seen on television, Adam is gentle and kind and occasionally rather silly. Unlike other television vicars, though, Adam isn’t a simple soul: he is a complex and flawed man. And that’s what makes Rev. a rather subversive show.

When Hollander created the show with writer James Wood, they wanted a realistic, while still funny, portrayal of a Church of England vicar. So they talked to vicars. Lots of them. In the Series 1 DVD commentary, they recalled traveling the country interviewing vicars and visiting churches, saying “it was hugely important to us that the Church of England watch and laugh and recognise [itself in the show].” Some of the storylines were inspired by true tales they were told, and the show thanks a list of real vicars as ‘Series Consultants’.

And overall the Church has been supportive of the series. Compliments have come from all levels including in 2011 when the then Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams, praised the show; recently the new Archbishop, Justin Welby, called it “great viewing” while acknowledging that, as a sitcom, it can’t “tell the whole story”(“Archbishop of Canterbury (Mostly) Sings The Praises of BBC2’s Rev”, The Guardian, 15 April 2014). But especially for a sitcom, it does quite well to deal with both the complexities of the Church and the complexities of a man who has devoted his life to it.

Religious hierarchy as well as the financial pressures of keeping the Church solvent are recurring themes throughout all three series. They’ve also looked at Church issues like parents suddenly becoming religious in hopes of getting their child into a CofE school, multi-faith relations, and the influence of evangelicalism.

However, the realism of the show also requires looking at the way the Church reacts to the world around it, so things like addiction, homelessness, and bigotry are also examined. This was highlighted nicely in Episode 2, Series 3 in which Adam is asked by friends, Jez and Rob, to perform a marriage ceremony, despite its being against Church law. This episode was broadcast two days after same-sex marriage became legal in England and Wales. This left Adam facing a difficult decision.

Which is essentially the heart of the show: Adam and his decisions. Sometimes they’re about the home/work balance, sometimes they’re about supporting his friends, sometimes about solving a community’s problems, sometimes about Adam’s own feelings and desires. But they all are based in morality, about doing what’s right rather than doing what’s wrong.

Given that Adam is a vicar, one would think the right path would be obvious and easy to follow. However, that’s not true, because that’s not life. Almost all of the moral conflicts he faces are complicated: his Church needs money and he’s given some—does it matter that the money came from a criminal act? An addict finally quits using, but has no place to live until a space at rehab becomes available—does Adam put him back on the street or let him stay in the vicarage, despite Alex not wanting the man there?

This in and of itself is a radical way for a church-based show to approach morality. But it becomes even more complicated because, in addition to being a man of God, Adam is a man—he has flaws like all of us do. He can be selfish, he has desires, he has bad habits, but he wants to do the right thing, he wants to be a good person. This reflects the place that many of us find ourselves in, regardless of the role religion plays in our lives.

One way Adam deals with these conflicts is through prayer, and these scenes contain some of the most beautiful writing in the series. The prayers are honest and painful and desperate. While his prayers are rarely answered as he might hope they will be, these scenes show the intimate relationship between Adam and his God and clearly help move him towards an understanding of himself and the world.

This is not to say that the show is always heavy. It does deal with big complications, but it’s also about the silly frustrations of day-to-day life: the misunderstandings, jealousies, and rivalries within families and workplaces. Vicars interact with a wide range of people, and the motley crew who pass through Adam’s church offer ample opportunities for comedy. In one scene between Adam and his fussy, uptight Lay Reader Nigel (Miles Jupp), they discuss Nigel’s personal life. Let’s just say if Nigel, despite being in his 30s, had revealed that he still lived at home with his mother, neither Adam nor the audience would have been surprised.

However, Nigel insists he has a lovely, long-term girlfriend named Cherry, despite never having mentioned her before. Adam asks what’s she like, and one can almost see the cogs in Nigel’s brain trying to work before he finally, awkwardly announces, “What’s she like? She’s gorgeous is what she’s like. A real honey, a real honey babe… lovely legs, great personality, too… she’s gluten-intolerant but you can get special pasta for that now. Blonde hair, five foot six and a half inches. Big breasts. Oh, I’m a very lucky man.”

During this excruciatingly desperate explanation, Adam listens and nods and doesn’t question. In a later episode where Adam needs to stay at Nigel’s flat, it has been clearly planted with ‘evidence’ of Cherry’s existence and despite the fraud being painfully obvious, Adam does his best to remain respectful (letting us laugh at Nigel since he cannot). It’s rarely a hurtful or angry humour; it is often gentle and subtle, because the characters are so nuanced.

Although the writing, including episodes by guest writers like Jonathan Harvey and Sam Bain and a recent one penned by Hollander himself, is responsible for much of Rev.‘s success, the truly ensemble cast is also fantastic.

Hollander plays Adam’s complexity with a beautiful simplicity. The prayer scenes—which generally occur while Adam is sitting, walking, or doing something mundane like washing the dishes—allow us to see the pain his internal conflicts cause (as well as hear it in Hollander’s voiceovers). As in the example with Nigel above, Hollander’s reactions to the inappropriate (and often ridiculous) behaviour of some of the other characters are also wonderfully done. He helps add to the comedy while still maintaining the vicar’s patience and compassion.

While perhaps this is unfair to mention, Hollander’s diminutive size is also key to Adam’s character. It highlights his feeling of impotency against powers he cannot possibly overthrow. And there’s just something much funnier about watching a shorter man drunk dancing. Especially when he’s dressed as a vicar.

Olivia Colman is simply a brilliant actress. While she is perhaps best known for her comedy roles, in more recent years, she’s moved into drama with the film Tyrannosaur and on television with Broadchurch. Her talents in both genres serve her well in this role.

Alex is a vicar’s wife and has to accept all that comes with that, including the invasion of her private family life and having to share her husband with his congregation and, of course, with God. She is also a successful solicitor, a loving partner, and (eventually) a mother. Colman fleshes out all aspects of Alex with realism so that, of all the characters, she is the one with whom most viewers are likely to identify. Her scenes with Hollander—whether she’s dressed in a red wig and stockings seducing him in the local shop or shouting at him to fuck off or confessing that her heart has broken—also develop Adam’s character, reminding us that he’s a man and a husband as well as a vicar.

Simon McBurney’s Archdeacon Robert is scary in his cruelty to Adam, which makes his moments of humanity, though few and far between, all the more touching. Jupp’s portrayal of Nigel is lovely, balancing the character’s certainty that he’d be a better vicar than Adam with the fact that his awkwardness will ensure he’ll probably never lead a church. Colin (Steve Evets) is Adam’s most loyal follower and eventual friend, despite the fact that his addictions, violence, and criminal behaviours cause Adam the most trouble.

All three of these characters could, on paper, seem relatively one-dimensional—the Archdeacon as Adam’s powerful enemy, Nigel as his daily irritation, Colin as the comic relief—but the writing and acting flesh them out into real people dealing with complex situations to the best of their abilities. All three do more than just serve as foils to Adam’s plans; they provide him opportunities to grow as all of them try to deal with the reality of being flawed human beings.

Additional cast members are Ellen Thomas as Adoha, who clearly has a bit of a crush on Adam, and Lucy Liemann as Ellie, on whom Adam clearly has a bit of a crush. Both women present challenges to Adam and Alex—in different ways, obviously. Jimmy Akingbola plays Mick, who is primarily seen at Adam’s door, scheming for cash. While his antics are weirdly outrageous and provide laughs, they also help demonstrate Adam’s patience.

The cast has often been joined by guest stars. Alexander Armstrong, Ralph Fiennes, Darren Boyd, Richard E. Grant, Sylvia Sims, and Kayvan Novak have all featured. In Series 3, the excellent team of Joanna Scanlan and Vicki Pepperdine has appeared as strange but powerful parts of the church’s hierarchy. Hugh Bonneville, though, as Adam’s old friend, Roland Wise, now a celebrity vicar, deserves special mention for his obnoxious snobbishness. It’s a well written part, but Bonneville brings so much to the character, even through the most subtle of looks or movements (simply the way Roland sits himself down on the edge of a desk made me hate him). The guests play so well off the established cast that their appearances never feel like ‘star turns’, just additional excellent performances.

All of the elements and details of the show, down to even the perfectly remixed version of Nat King Cole’s “I Couldn’t Hear Nobody Pray” as its theme song, make Rev. work in ways that aren’t mysterious, but are moving and meaningful. It continues to push buttons and boundaries, and it continues to be popular. It lets us peek inside the life of a modern day vicar, which is funny and tearful and joyful and complicated, and we can laugh because that’s how most of our lives are, as well.

Christine Brandel was born in the American Midwest but came to life in England's East Midlands. She is an educator and a writer. Her poetry and fiction have appeared in literary journals on both sides of the Atlantic, and she was a columnist for the arts and literature magazine, Incorporating Writing. She rants and raves through her character Agatha Whitt-Wellington (Miss) on her blog, Everyone Needs an Algonquin.


Published at: http://www.popmatters.com/pm/column/180877-gently-subversive-rev/